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Soft Power is Obama's Greatest Strength

12/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The recent commemorations of the First World War conjured up some wishful thinking for me. Taking in pictures of soldiers in black and white, watching grainy footage of clunky low tech tanks, it was easy to imagine that war was somehow part of the 20th century - a mode of aggression now on its last legs. Yesterday's fake edition of the New York Times, heralding the end of the Iraq War, confirmed I was not the only one yearning.

But war is not over and worse, there is no evidence yet that bellicosity is out of favour. Obama wants to finish - not stop - the war against Al Quaeda and the Taliban, describing his stance as "tough, smart and principled". He has warned Pakistan that he will come and get the terrorists they are harbouring and pointedly refused to respond to Iran's over enthusiastic welcome to his victory.

Even so, I know I'm not alone in thinking that Obama's election has opened the door to a softer way of being powerful in the world. Maybe because Obama chose not to respond to McCain's bully tactics with stronger ripostes, but took them in his stride and focussed on the future. Or maybe because, at every stage of his long journey to the White House, he has challenged our easy polarisation of cultures, politics and choices: seeking instead to find common ground between all Americans "who long for lives of peace". Or maybe because he has a gentle voice, a loving look and counts dancing as a Presidential qualification.

He appears to have what Congressman Dennis Kucinich would describe as the 'capacity for peace'. At the same moment that Obama was in a stadium with Bruce Springsteen in that last push for Cleveland Ohio, I joined Cleveland Representative Kucinich in a fund raiser with British comedian Eddie Izzard in a nearby venue. Well before Obama began to make speeches against the war in Iraq Kucinich had been publicly insisting that there was no evidence of WMD there and hence no proof of aggressive intent: he was the only one of this year's Democratic Presidential candidates who voted against the war in 2002.

But much as he appreciates Obama's capacity, Kucinich knows the President can't act alone:

"People think that Obama will do the work for them, but the truth is that nothing changes until the people themselves develop the capacity for peace internally: only then will it arrive... Few people realise that peace is not a passive thing but it is also not a doing thing: it is the presence of a capacity for compassion, empathy, awareness of how we are all vitally linked to one another. We have capitulated to the culture of violence because we doubt our capacity to evolve beyond it."

In other words, we don't think we can survive by being peaceful.

Does that explain why, despite being described by so many as the 'soft power' candidate in the recent elections, Obama's campaign never used the term themselves, wary no doubt of the fear it could induce? This from Galen Fox, former Hawaii State House Republican Leader:

"The term "soft power" has to be one of politics' great self-inflicted wounds. It's supposed to mean something better than Bush's over-reliance on force, but the words actually suggest appeasement in the face of terrorists, nuclear bomb-waving Iranians, and other threats to peace"

. In May this year, American Prospect said this:

"But despite its timeliness, its ability to accurately describe the world in which we live, and its natural liberal appeal, Soft Power has a catastrophic flaw. It is horribly named. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a term that more effectively plays into all the negative stereotypes that the American public has about Democrats and national security."

Are we caught in a trap of our own making? Loving the less aggressive stance of Obama over McCain, yet afraid to use the power his way of being offers? Didn't he just win the vote of not just the US electorate but the world by offering to sit down to talks with Iran's President Ahmadinejad and to end the war in Iraq? Joseph Nye - who first coined the phrase - himself overcame the semantic problem by creating a partnership between soft and hard power now called Smart Power. Obama seized on that - see above - but it will not help him in the future, to uphold the belief that non-violence is a weak option.

Perhaps all that is needed is a good role model for soft power: someone who seeks to engage rather than stand off, capable of dialogue not just debate. Who is looking for transformation - scene-changing results - rather than a win over losers. Who has profound empathy, but is centred enough to hold to his own principles in negotiation.

I think we have that man in Obama: let's hope not just for the change that he is, but for the change that he inspires in us. Unless activists and supporters - we, the media - can create a climate in which Obama's naturally peaceful ways can flourish, there will be a limit to how much change he can bring.